Small Unimportant State Calls Fresh Elections as Corruption Accusations Fly

The Prime Minister of a small European nation has called for a general election. But the leader of the country’s incumbent hard-right government faced immediate demands to come clean as it became apparent that state prosecutors were preparing to bring charges against around thirty of the party’s legislators and staff over irregularities in the previous election – held two years ago.

The ballots cast back then had catapulted the PM’s predecessor to a shock majority in the national parliament, with the idiosyncratic electoral system giving the party more than half of the seats on a mere 37% of the popular vote. But investigations by a state-owned media channel found that there had been over-spending in several key seats, and that in some cases spending hadn’t been declared at all.

It became clear that this had the potential to have decided the election, and that without this undeclared assistance, key marginals may not have fallen into the hands of the blue team.

Police forces followed up on the media investigation, opening 29 cases a year after the election. 29 by-elections would be more than enough to create a political earthquake; the government’s slim majority was only 12.

The then PM was in a bind. He’d run into difficulties with that tiny sliver of control, and despite the uncertainty over the legitimacy of his position, he decided to take drastic action. Calling a referendum on the country’s place within its most important trading bloc seemed unnecessary, even foolish; but it would appease those on his backbenches who frequently seemed to be sharpening their daggers.

The referendum was a parade of falsehoods. The campaign director of the winning side admitted later that they would not have won without telling a straightforward lie. They claimed that money ‘saved’ from abandoning free trade would be spent on the nation’s health services – a claim that was immediately abandoned by the campaign’s own leaders after the result came through.

Nonetheless, the decision was made. A cosmic cloud of political fallout followed. A summer of insanity in which both the governing party and the opposition held leadership elections, only for the former to be left with a coronation and the latter to retain their previous leader, despite his deep unpopularity.

Not only that; the new PM had been on the wrong side of the result in the referendum, but now appeared to be dead set on implementing that unwanted result.

Of course, the people did not have the opportunity to offer an opinion on their new leader. The argument ran that the general election had given the party a mandate, and that the mandate had been refreshed and strengthened by the referendum, even though the party’s official policy had been defeated in that referendum, and even though the country’s leader had had to resign in ignominy.

The new PM quickly set about testing the strength of that mandate by abandoning the commitment in the previous election manifesto to stay in the trading bloc even if the referendum was lost. At the same time, a vicious campaign against dissent was beginning to swirl in the media, with judges involved in assessing the constitutional impact of the plebiscite branded ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’. This language was not condemned by the PM herself.

Just a few months after the new PM was elevated, it became clear that her top aide had been involved in the election expenses scandal. Further evidence was uncovered a few months later.

Once again, though, the party pressed ahead. A seismic decision was taken: the country officially began the process of leaving the trading bloc. This was despite further revelations – that same month – that the party’s headquarters and many top officials had been deeply implicated in the election expenses scandal.

All of which brings us to the present. Today, the Prime Minister called for an early general election, presenting this as a natural way to refresh her government’s mandate and strengthen her hand in negotiations. But it seems clear from this torrent of obfuscation and chicanery that it is only about one thing: shoring up her corrupt, disastrous and potentially illegal regime by any means necessary.

How the country can continue to pursue its extreme policy of self-defenestration, at a stroke making its economy less competitive and taking freedom and rights away from its people, is unclear. It would at least have been appropriate to wait until the police forces and the prosecutors had finished their inquiries.

Instead this plucky island nation is now faced with the prospect of a quasi-dictatorial PM whose power was acquired in an undemocratic, opaque fashion, prosecuting policies on behalf of her friends and cronies, not the nation she represents.

It must now be the role of international observers and – perhaps – interventionists from prominent countries to build an appropriate response.

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“Crush the Saboteurs”: Vladimir Lenin

First Rule of Negotiation: Keep Your Options Open #GE2015

In an election where the outcome is highly uncertain, and likely to be defined by feverish negotiations between many parties – with even the smallest possibly playing a part – ruling out options before the result is known is obviously foolish.

2010 was a success

The Liberal Democrats know this well. We have recent experience of negotiating in a balanced Westminster Parliament. In 2010, we established a clear principle – that we would talk first to the party with the largest number of seats and/or votes. This was our initial negotiating position. Crucially, we did not rule out talking to other parties.

Over the five days following the last election, Nick Clegg and his team played a blinder. They skilfully used tenuous electoral arithmetic (which only just made a deal with Labour potentially viable – and wouldn’t have in practice) to increase their leverage in conversations with the Conservatives, who were terrified that such a deal had already been done. (This is often forgotten, but the reason for Cameron’s famous “big, open and comprehensive” offer was that senior Tories believed – laughably, in hindsight – that a Lib/Lab deal had been struck.

I still believe that in 2010, the Lib Dems got a good deal in policy terms. We secured our main goals, and while there was obviously a major error (you all know the one), I still don’t believe the Tories could have been forced into a better deal on the constitution.

The reason we got a good deal was because we kept our options open. There was a clear, established principle – the largest party is the one we’ll talk to first – and our manifesto had sufficiently radical policy positions to enable a sensible trade-off or trade-down based on Hegelian-type principles.

Why not the same again?

I can only assume, though, that senior Lib Dems this time around think we got a bad deal in 2010, as the approach seems to be entirely different now. Nick Clegg has been on the news today, ruling out some sort of minority coalition with Labour. As it happens, the arrangement he describes – one where the SNP are free to come and go, nipping at our heels and creating instability – would perhaps be both unworkable and damaging to the process of government.

But the idea of ruling such deals out now – difficult though they may be – is deeply counterproductive. At best, people will ask why we haven’t specifically ruled out other deals, perhaps with parties that are no more representative (or even less representative) than the SNP; we can think immediately of the DUP. At worst, the risk is that the Lib Dems look like they are pulling only in one direction, especially when Nick has also said that a government formed by the second largest party might “lack legitimacy” – something that has no basis and actually militates against sensible coalition-building.

This is doubly baffling when one looks at the Lib Dem manifesto and realises that it is a highly cautious, measured document, designed to allow synthesis with either of the two big parties. If anything, the Lib Dems’ current policy agenda is closer to Labour’s than to the Tories. Effectively, unlike in 2010, we have pared down our expectations before even commencing negotiations, hoping to act as a tacked-on adjunct rather than as the engine of ideas. This, I believe, is a grave mistake and one we will live to regret as a party.

What’s the result?

It’s a very confused position, especially as current polling indicates that a Labour-Lib Dem-SNP match-up of some kind may be the only grouping that actually guarantees a majority.

But more damagingly than that, voters who only read headlines (and that’s probably most of us) will again get the sense that Nick Clegg only wants to do a deal with the Conservatives. I know that this is not the case: all Lib Dems are passionate about working in government in the national interest, and would certainly not be averse to working with Labour if it meant a better settlement and another opportunity to push through liberal policies. I think even Labour recognise that, which is why we are yet to hear official calls for Clegg to stand down to enable a deal; there is recognition within Labour that Clegg is a player and a believer in plural government.

All of which only brings us back to the question: why take this position publicly, less than two weeks before polling day?

#GE2015 Your Questions Answered #3: What’s Your View on Tactical Voting?

This is the third in a series of posts attempting to answer questions and comments put to me by family and friends around the General Election. This time round, the issue is tactical voting. The specific question put to me was as follows:

What’s your view on tactical voting? (e.g. a relatively safe Labour seat, where UKIP is the only potential contender)

First, let’s define our terms. Tactical voting, according to Wikipedia, occurs “when a voter supports a candidate other than his or her sincere preference in order to prevent an undesirable outcome”.

This is a relatively simple one for me. You have to separate out the question into two parts to get things clear. There’s the matter of how we should act in our current system, which arguably encourages tactical voting. And there’s the matter of whether we should retain such a system.

Let’s start with the question of how we should act in our current system. It is obvious that in a decision involving more than two candidates where there is only one winner, tactical voting is automatically rational. The example given in the original question is a good one. If I am (say) a Conservative supporter in that constituency, I have the following choices:

  1. Follow my sincere preference, vote Conservative, and “waste” my vote
  2. Vote for Labour if I dislike UKIP sufficiently
  3. Vote for UKIP if I dislike Labour sufficiently

To me, as a natural Lib Dem supporter, I dislike UKIP to such an extent that I would vote Labour in that environment, as problematic as I find their current attitude to immigration and many other things too numerous to discuss.

This would not be true if you replaced “UKIP” with “Conservative” in the question, though. My current constituency is a Tory-Labour marginal and I will be voting Lib Dem on the basis that it’s my sincere preference, and it makes little difference to me which of the two leading candidates win.

Another wrinkle is the calibre of the candidates. If I were in Brighton Pavilion, for example, I would be highly likely to vote for Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s sole MP, as she has improved Parliament by her presence, showing a principled approach and working in a collegiate way with others on various issues. This is also true of Ed Timpson, the Conservative MP for Crewe and Nantwich, who has been to my mind a very good Children’s Minister.

It’s not at all simple. But ultimately the point of the secret ballot is to allow you to make such decisions based on your own conscience. I would tend towards encouraging people to vote for their first preference on that basis, even though the system militates against it. But I would never judge people for voting tactically, given the restrictions placed upon us by the system as it stands.

Unsurprising then that I don’t believe the system should remain as it stands. There are certain things that I hope most people would consider axiomatic about a representative democracy:

  1. It should be representative. To me this means that the votes cast should translate accurately into the representation elected to enact laws and create policies on our behalf.
  2. It should be democratic. To me this means that citizens are able to vote freely and fairly in a system that gives an accurate picture of the people’s wishes.

In order for such a system to pertain we would have to switch to a form of proportional representation and a voting system that allows our preferences to be accurately reflected. The Alternative Vote system on which we had a referendum in 2011 would have achieved the latter of the two goals, a substantial improvement and a down-payment on the former goal, which would be the bigger and more vital shift. How to vote under FPTP and AV, by the great Anthony Smith

We may yet see a renewed movement in favour of such reform after the election. Not only will UKIP and the Greens lack almost any representation, despite picking up perhaps 20% of the vote between them; it looks highly likely that we are going to be in a position where the SNP wins perhaps 90-100% of the seats in Scotland on about 45% of the vote.

The UK will be held to ransom by a party benefiting from the ludicrously unrepresentative First-Past-The-Post system. The difference this time is that it will be a party that wants to break up the UK. But that is a subject for another post…

In Defence of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011

Much has been said, and much written, about the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 (“the Act”). It has been a vexed piece of legislation since it first glinted in the government’s eye.

What is the Fixed Term Parliaments Act?

The contents page of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011

For those who aren’t familiar with it – and, let’s be honest, why should you be, if you’re not a die-hard political geek like me – it’s a law introduced by the coalition government in 2011. It does some very simple things:

  1. It set the date of the next general election – 7th May 2015. It also set out the date for every general election thereafter – the 1st Thursday in May, every five years.
  2. It says general elections can only be held on other dates if:
    1. At least 66% of the House of Commons votes for a motion for one, or
    2. A motion of no confidence is passed, and no alternative government is formed within 14 days.

While there’s a requirement for the Prime Minister of the day to review the Act in 2020, there is no “sunset clause” meaning that the law applies indefinitely unless a government repeals or amends it.

What’s so great about the Fixed Term Parliaments Act?

You are probably asking what’s so great about it. I think it does three very good things.

Firstly, it takes power away from the government of the day. Previously, British politics has been dominated by speculation over when the Prime Minister of the day will call the next general election. Generally speaking, this is highly distracting and can even lead to a kind of “phoney war” where parties mistakenly begin preparing for an election that never arrives. The most famous recent example was Gordon Brown’s decision not to call a snap election in 2007, a decision that took so long in coming that the Labour Party had apparently already committed hundreds of thousands of pounds to publicity for the campaign. In my view it is far better for the date of the election to be locked in by law, preventing capricious decisions made in the narrow political interests of the Prime Minister and his party.

Secondly, and following on from the previous point, it has a profound impact on the ability of government and Parliament to plan the scrutiny and passage of new laws. Before the Act, the very end of Parliaments were characterised by something called “the wash-up”. This was a highly unsatisfactory period in which governments would attempt to pass legislation at the last minute – usually by colluding with opposition whips. In 2010, a particularly egregious and opaque “wash-up” led to the passage of several controversial Bills, including most famously the Digital Economy Act 2010 – a hugely flawed attack, both politically and technically, on digital rights and internet access. In contrast, in 2015, there was no such “wash-up”, as all major Parliamentary business was completed in time and with full scrutiny. This is a very positive step forward.

Thirdly, the provisions of the Act create an incentive for parties to work together. As described above, one way an election could be called under the terms of the Act is if there is agreement across the House of Commons that one is necessary and timely. That is not impossible, but it is highly unlikely – can you imagine a time at which both the Tories and Labour agreed that a general election was desirable?

Instead, the political parties will be forced to work together to avoid the damaging instability of a vote of no confidence. Minority parties will have to think very hard before taking decisions that might bring down the government. It would not be in their interests as they are less able to fight general elections – they have neither the funds nor the national organisation to tilt a second time, and perhaps with little warning. Meanwhile, large parties will be conscious that if they are seen to have created instability by the electorate, they are likely to be punished at the ballot box.

So why do some people dislike the Fixed Term Parliaments Act?

Some commentators have argued that the Act needs to be repealed. As far as I can tell, there are a few reasons for this.

  1. They want the power to call a general election to revert to the Sovereign as a so-called “prerogative power” rather than a statutory one.
  2. They are scared of the possibility that a new government might be formed without a general election having been called.
  3. They believe that the Act was itself a stitch-up designed to protect the Lib Dems in coalition, and prevent an early election during the current Parliament.
  4. They think the Act creates situations in which smaller parties can hold larger ones to ransom with the threat of a vote of no confidence.

These are quite easy to rebut. The first objection is just a hangover from the old stale duopoly. Generally speaking, it’s propounded by people who belong to either Labour or the Tories and want their guy (Cameron or Miliband) to be able to call an election whenever he feels like it. They dress this up in dry constitutional language – hinting at deep respect for Her Majesty and her right to appoint a government – but the reality is much simpler.

The second one? That happens in other countries all the time. It’s only controversial here because it would be relatively new. Although we should note that in actual fact it’s happened twice in recent history – it just so happened that we had new Prime Ministers who were taking over from other people in their own party. John Major in 1990 and Gordon Brown in 2007 both created effectively “new governments” without winning an election; Brown was often referred to as an “unelected Prime Minister” but no one seriously questioned the constitutional legitimacy of his tenure.

Thirdly, there might be some truth to the idea that the Act was conducive to stability of the coalition. I’m not sure that’s in itself a bad thing, to be honest. But the Lib Dems had supported fixed term parliaments for decades prior to 2010, and had most recently attempted to introduce them in 2008. No one can really blame us for being slightly opportunistic on constitutional reform – especially when other parts of their reform agenda imploded so spectacularly.

And what about the fourth objection? Again, it feels like the death throes of a dying system. Why precisely should a party that wins barely a third of the popular vote hold the whip hand? Why shouldn’t it have to negotiate and talk to other parties in order to achieve the changes it wants to see? And, in the same way, why shouldn’t smaller parties, who exist for a purpose after all, attempt to exert the maximum pressure possible on behalf of their supporters and constituents?